Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

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But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

An Advent Poem

Empty, the sanctuary waits
beneath a tree, beneath a cross—
the branches a burden and trough
to bear body and newborn king.

White wails of a storm without
are vespers whispered warm within,
And yet echo infant, age-old cry —
of beginning and of end.

In the lonely silence, all is dead,
yet all holds living breath:
awaiting — fearful, wonderstruck —
marriage of birth and death.

The tree below soon will glow
while carols sung, bells rung,
but only to light the waiting night
for the ghastly promise hung
above the tree, upon the beam—
O! Lift your eyes and see!

In the fullness of both fear and cheer,
Gather quiet, waiting here:
beneath the cross and truest tree
topped by the Morning’s darkened beam:
Born to die and yet in death,
taking that first all-blessed breath.
And as that storied star must rise,
Cradle cross bears Christmas skies.

Art courtesy of Rebecca Tyler (oppositeendsofthescale.wordpress.com)

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Mariners

We are mariners, mariners we,

made for the land, parted from sea

from that second day and still –

striving as on the earth to fill-

drawn by its alluring, billowy waves-

we drink down the depths

to find watery graves.

.

We hear the call, that age-old call,

a whisper first, a breeze enthralls,

that grows and storms, restless ocean

which floods within the hearts of men.

And from our own mouths, it ever rails:

“Depart, depart, and set your sails!”

.

And so headlong into the deep

we crash from quick-eroding beach.

Toeing the sand was never enough;

we ached to ride the riptides rough.

.

Water there upon land gives life

but here the salt-foam drains it dry.

But never we stop to ponder: why?

Why to the sea, which roars, “Stay back!”

Why tempt a beast, that is bound to attack?

But the sea is within us; we ate of its fruit

it drowns from inside ’til shore zephyrs fall mute.

.

We fashion our ships, believing them arks

to keep us safe from the ghostly white sharks.

But up on their decks as we voyage across

we all yet shoot down heaven’s albatross.

.

Best stay inland, best anchor your soul.

Our bodies might swim, but this old sailor knows:

there is no raft or vessel that might

bear us when the steady dock’s out of sight.

Cast out the life-sucking salt in your heart!

Rebuff its waves with its own cry: “Depart!”

“Easter morn rose grey with fog”- A Poem for Easter Sunday, 2018

Easter morn rose grey with fog

-anticipation hid-

No dawn’s light to testify

to what the Savior did.

.

Still we know and sing aloud

of the Risen Son

And yet the part that strikes me most

was that on Friday done.

.

Rising up is natural;

the sun never stays down.

What is more a miracle’s

a God put ‘neath the ground.

.

That He should live, lifted high,

is glorious, fitting, right-

And yet what is most shattering

is that my Lord would die.

.

Rising reign proves deity,

but in that final breath,

Is found the Lover’s agony

that giveth life in death.

.

Now on this grey Easter morn

the fog is found a friend;

Coronated by cruel thorns,

the radiant King ascends.

.

I know by noon the sun will burn

this ling’ring shade away.

Yet ’twas the shrouded cross earned

the joy that warms today.

.

“He is Risen!” Yes, indeed!

We, in Christ, are raised!

And “lema sabachthani”

Has turned to sunlit praise.

Tenebrae: a sonnet

Awhirl before my eyes did swirl the sparks

As one by one the candles turned to smoke

And sitting there in silent, stillest dark,

A flicker burned within and I awoke.

.

I felt a pang for that dear body broke

That bled betwixt time and eternity.

It seemed I saw His image in the smoke

And felt my heart, too, fixed upon that tree.

.

Oh how I ached to join this agony!

Yet I, near sleeping, safely sat below.

I closed my eyes the better then to see

And hear the ever-present, past echo.

.

To wait in darkness was my only wish;

Now hidden, I wanted no light but His.

Non-Writing Writer

I was inspired this morning as I walked to practice piano for an upcoming recital… this would have been great, had I been inspired to practice. Rather, I was inspired to set the opening of Wordsworth’s The Prelude to music. 

My roommate (bless her) stopped me just in time: “Ryanne, if you write a melody and add lyrics, you’ll also want to add harmony and piano. You don’t have time!” 

Valid. 

But I felt strongly the annoyance of being unable to create due to the pressures of my ordinary, required pursuits. 

So I wrote a little rhyme to vent: 

A non writing writer’s a monster they say:

A little too frazzled and nearly insane.

She lives in an enchanted, storybook world 

Yet can’t venture in, for life is a whirl.

One single word leads to many and two-

Well, they multiply to be more than a few. 

And should she dare to compose a small line 

She risks the danger of falling behind;

The everyday life has no cares for the muse,

Though the poet’s soul, she hardly did choose. 

So cursed with a mind that brews up ideas 

And a heart that ever ceaselessly feels,

She stumbles about with a businesslike stride 

And forces her little brainchildren to hide

And wait for a time when life will relax 

It’s grip made of boring and ord’nary tasks-

So she might finally write them all down,

These inkling ideas that, impatient, abound. 

Autumn’s Daughter 

I am this season’s child 

     though I am dressed as spring: 

The burning gold of fall is hid

      beneath the flow’rs I bring. 

While storms of thought are whirling, 

     and swirl within my mind,

All you see’s the cloudless blue  

     of clear sky in my eyes.

Dreams and nightmares flutter

    like vibrant, falling leaves, 

 But I doubt you’d ever know  

     for the roses in my cheeks. 

Though my hair’s bright as sunlit May 

     and my lips brim with laughter,

My birth was a November day 

     and I am Autumn’s Daughter. 

A Sunset Reflection 

I took this photo on a sunset run and added the words (surprise! They were not actually fabulous skywriting!) as I was doing some reading later. The exercise, combined with the wisdom of St. Hildegard, were a welcome relief to an emotional day. 

Sometimes on overcast days like today, we fail to remember the sun. Yet, by grace, it descends to us each evening, casting its warm glow over the earth and tempering the darkness with the promise of its brilliant return come dawn. 

What a marvelous image this is of the reality we know as Believers. (Plato has me on an image-reality thought trend.) As beautiful as sunsets are, they are a mere flicker of the splendor of the True Son who humbled Himself for us. Likewise, although we run in a darkened world, He has already risen with splendor beyond any sunrise…and, in Him, so shall we! We live in the purgatory between sunset and the sunrise, but our hope is more sure than the dawn. The race is not in vain, for the Lord gives us the wings to overcome; through His comfort, we can rest in the promise that joy comes not only in the morning, but through mourning.